An Explorers Guide to Threats and First Aid
By Dan Haga

I would like to compile a bunch of useful info on threats an explorer may come across in the field and how to handle them. This guide is by far not complete so keep checking back for updates.

Skin Poisoning from Plants
I want to start out with something that is a real problem for me, skin poisoning from plants. It is very common in the east to run into poison ivy, poison sumac and poison oak while exploring. While it doesn’t bother everyone some people like me are very allergic to is and need to watch out.

The poison in the poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac is contained in oily sap (urushiol oil) throughout the plant. Touching these plants my cause the skin to become red and itchy. Later blisters may form.

The sap of poisonous plants takes about 20 minutes to bind to the skin. If you think you have touched one, try and rinse immediately with soapy water or at least water. There are also over the counter “scrubs” which you can carry like a bottle of hand sanitizer which can be used to wash off the oil in the field. Calamine lotion may relieve itching but I find that the effects are very short lived. Your best bet is to just not scratch it and leave it alone. There are good medications that do work better than calamine but they can be a bit pricey.

Poison Ivy:
Poison ivy is a vine easily recognized by 3-parted leaf stems. A hairy vine commonly seen on trees is also a dead giveaway. All parts of the plant are a threat. Leaves are green in the spring and summer and turn brilliant shades of red and orange in the fall.

Poison Oak:
Poison oak is a low shrub so watch out for it on the ground. Like poison ivy all parts of the poison oak plant are a threat. The shrub is made up of stems with 3 leaves that slightly resemble those of an oak tree.

Poison Sumac:
Poison sumac is a small tree or large shrub. Key features to identify it include large alternate leaves usually with 9-13 entire (not toothed) leaflets and a red rachis (the stem connecting the leaflets). The leaflets are smooth and may be shiny above.

  • The plants are a threat in all seasons and even when dead. Urushiol oil stays active on any surface for up to 5 years after leaving a plant. Wash your clothes!
  • Scratching a rash will not make it spread. Urushiol exposure is the only thing that will create rash. The oil is not contained in blisters.
  • Leaves of 3 let them be? True for poison ivy and oak but poison sumac can have 7 to 13 leaves per branch.